A woman talks by video call with her mother, in the United Kingdom, during confinement.Getty Images
78% of Spaniards used Internet phone calls or video calls in 2020, according to Eurostat . This data places Spain among the European Union countries that most used this method to communicate last year. The rise of video calls during the coronavirus pandemic in teleworking and in personal life has revealed a problem: the quality of the cameras of many of the laptops on the market leaves a lot to be desired. a computer, the audio, the battery or the performance are some of the priorities of the users, according to Lenovo . But the cameras, at least so far, have not received as much attention. “Consumers did not buy laptops for the camera, and therefore a more expensive camera did not report higher sales. Perhaps that will change now, "says David Merino , professor of Computer Science, Multimedia and Telecommunications Studies at the Open University of Catalonia (UOC).
The cameras on laptops, according to the expert," are quite bad "and" have limited optical quality ”. The main problem is that "they have to fit in a very, very small space." “If laptops are thin today, their screens are even thinner. They are considerably thinner than a phone or tablet. This greatly limits the optical design that can be integrated, "he says.
Fernando Suárez, president of the Council of Official Colleges of Computer Engineering (CCII) , indicates that" it is strange to find laptops with cameras capable of recording video with more resolution than 720p (1280 x 720 pixels) ”. “To get an idea, this was the resolution of the first flat panel LED TVs that replaced the old tube ones,” he says. Nowadays, as the computer scientist recalls, it is common for some low-end mobile phones to record at 1080p and high-end ones in 4K. That is, at much higher resolutions. With laptops, having a lower resolution, the quality of the captured image is "much worse, with a grainy appearance, without details and even blurry". "It leaves a lot to be desired", he acknowledges.
But why have laptops made so much progress in other areas and webcams have not improved at the same rate? Jaime Font, computer engineer and professor of the degrees in Computer Engineering and Design and Development of Videogames at the Universidad San Jorge, explains that "laptop cameras are designed to transmit an image that complements the voice, not to take photographs."
These webcams have been used for years to make work video calls in which, according to Font, the content that is shared is more important – a presentation or a document – and the voice that explains it. In these virtual encounters, the image of the person was usually relegated "to the background." "In fact, it is normal for work video calls to turn off the camera to reduce traffic and facilitate the transmission of audio and shared image from the computer," he points out.
Cameras on smartphones
The evolution of Cameras have been very different on laptops than on mobiles. When comparing both devices, it should be taken into account that most phones of this type have at least two cameras: a front one, which is used for video calls and selfies, and a rear one, with which most of the cameras are made. photos and better results are achieved.
"The rear cameras have undergone constant evolution because they seek to replace traditional cameras," says Font. The engineer emphasizes that these sensors are designed to take high-quality photos and videos and have increasingly better specifications and functions. For example, to focus, manage lighting or color temperature, or stabilize the image. It is unthinkable to achieve with a computer camera the photographs taken with the flagships of manufacturers such as Apple or Samsung .
The front cameras of smartphones have also evolved, especially with the rise of social networks, as Font indicates. On the other hand, the professor considers that laptop cameras have hardly improved over the years because "people do not take their laptop out for sightseeing or use it to capture the moments they live in day-to-day life." Those who use the laptop's camera more often, such as youtubers , tend to resort to “accessories for their laptops”: “They use an external camera of higher quality or even complement it with external lighting, as in a photo studio” .
For those users who think that their computer cameras are bad, Merino recommends using the mobile camera as if it were the laptop's webcam. The expert mentions some applications designed for this. For example, Camo or DroidCam . Both allow the user to turn the smartphone or tablet into a webcam for their PC while making video calls via Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Skype or Google Meet.
Laptops in the future
What will computer cameras look like in the coming years? Will they offer higher quality? Will they be located elsewhere or will they come separate from the laptop? Will there be multiple cameras on the same device? Suárez predicts that some companies are probably betting on artificial intelligence to improve image quality. But predicting to what extent the current situation will or will not cause many changes is complicated, as pointed out by Font.
The engineer insists that mounting more powerful cameras on computers would make it necessary to thicken the screens or relocate the camera in another area of the world. laptop. There have already been some improvement attempts by some companies. For example, the Huawei Matebook X Pro has the camera hidden between its keys. "The camera is discreetly placed on the keyboard and appears only when you want it," says the Chinese manufacturer. The companies that have taken steps in this direction “have gained a lot of criticism for the unfortunate angle they show towards the user”, as Merino points out.
“It is more likely that we will experience a change in the way we use technology, for For example, using the rear camera of the mobile phone for calls made with the laptop, that of the technology itself ”, says Fons, who considers it unlikely that manufacturers will choose to include a 200-euro camera in a laptop to make work video calls . Even so, it does predict that there will be some improvements in laptop cameras soon. Of course, users "will not get to the point of deciding which laptop to buy based on the camera they have, something that does happen with smartphones. "
In some cases, the most powerful cameras would only make sense if there are also advances in applications. Font recalls that the video calling platforms booming during the pandemic have to manipulate the image captured by the camera to ensure that it can be transmitted and received without delay to all interlocutors. “This generally translates into compression of the image and a reduction in its quality. It would not matter if we had a better camera if in the end we had to compress the image to be able to send it without delays ”, he indicates.
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